By Kathryn Hamilton, EMGV
It’s September. The last tomatoes might be hanging on for dear life on tired vines; the squash bugs have decimated the zucchini; if it hasn’t already, the basil has begun to bolt; a few pole beans might be producing, and an eggplant or two is basking in the last heat of summer. For me, it’s time to turn the page on a new gardening year.
Piedmont veggie gardening has two growing seasons: cool and warm. And believe it or not, in this southern climate, the cool season is longer than the warm season. In fact, there are actually two cool-weather planting periods: September to February, and February to May. With a little planning and a small investment in reusable row covers, the Piedmont gardener can put a variety of fresh veggies on the table all year around. (Stay tuned for tips and techniques on extending the gardening season.)
September: Let the New Year Begin
My “new year” planting begins mid-to-late August. With summer veggies still in residence (but slowly succumbing to age and disease), I start cool weather leafy crops – lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, kale, and collards (which I pick leaf by leaf) in seed trays. Within four to six weeks, just as the temperature starts to moderate, they’ll be ready to transplant into the garden. I’ll also start spinach in pots on my patio.
I don’t find it practical to grow cool-weather heading plants (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage) from seeds. They typically require cool temperatures, which would mean growing them under lights in air conditioning in the summer or in a cooled environment in the winter. Additionally, because of the Persephone Period, it’s advantageous to have the stronger, more mature crops available at garden centers for a September planting.
The Persephone Period1 is the time of year when daylight falls below 10 hours. During this time, plant growth pretty much comes to a halt. According to the US Naval Observatory,2 the Persephone Period in Durham lasts between November 17 and January 16, and if you want to pick broccoli for your holiday dinner, it’s wise to get the largest plants you can.
With transplants, days to maturity starts at the time of transplanting. Depending on the variety you choose and the size of the plant, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower each take between 60 and 100 days to mature. So, plants put in September first could conceivably be ready mid-November or at some point through January. As soon as these veggies hit retail shelves, they go into my garden, even if it means planting them under the last thriving eggplant. (If this plant, in a shadier environment, grows slower than the others, I consider it season extension.)
(Left to right) This cabbage, harvested on New Year’s Eve, was planted in September. A section of Napa cabbage, broccoli, and bok choy, planted in September and harvested in November. (Image credit: Kathyrn Hamilton)
Then, I fill the space remaining with my favorite root veggies — beets, carrots, and turnips. Spinach gets planted in pots on my patio. If I can squeeze it, I’ll also add some lettuce. And, if there’s still a bare spot, I’ll toss in some old lettuce seeds on the chance they will sprout and can then be transplanted into pots extending the lettuce harvest.
February: A Second Winter Crop
The second cool season begins in mid-January when I sprout snow peas between paper towels. At the same time, I’ll warm the soil at the ends of my beds with a combination of water and plastic. (Water under plastic conducts heat better than plastic alone.) Once the soil is warm enough, depending on the year it could be as early as January 31, I’ll plant the sprouted peas.
(Left to right) Snow peas sprouted in paper towels. The tails are the beginnings of roots. The same sprouted snow peas about two weeks later. (Image credit: Kathryn Hamilton)
As soon as broccoli and cabbage are back in stock, mid-February, I’ll get them into the garden, and depending on what root veggies have been harvested, I’ll seed more beets, turnips, and carrots for continuous harvest through early summer.
March: Getting a Jump on Summer
Cucumbers get started mid-March so they can go into warmed soil early-to-mid-April. This can be dangerous, as frost is always an April threat. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to cover tender plants. However, these cucumbers will start producing in May and go into early July when they’ll be replaced with a succeeding crop.
Tokiwa Japanese cucumbers started indoors transplanted on April 2. (Image credit: Kathryn Hamilton)
May: The Summer Garden Begins
Once the peas are done at the end of May, beans will take their place. I’ll plant bush beans in one bed and pole beans in the other. The bush beans will mature first, and the pole beans will follow.
If the stars align and the weather cooperates, broccoli, cabbage, and the remaining root vegetables will be harvested by mid-May, and tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, and eggplants will take their place. Again, if I must, I’ll tuck the tiny tomato plants next to the cabbage until it’s ready to harvest.
By August, my gardening year will end and in September I’ll start all over again. And while the following is not a full list of all that can be grown in the Piedmont throughout the year, you can find that here.3
My Veggie Year-at-a-Glance
|Mid-August||Start cool-weather leafy veggies||Arugula, chard, collards, chard, kale, lettuce, spinach|
|Mid-Sept||Transplant heading varieties||Broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, collards|
|Mid-Sept||Seed root veggies||Beets, carrots, radishes, rutabaga, turnips|
|End January||Transplant||Snow peas|
|Mid-February||Transplant heading varieties||Broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, collards|
|Early March||Start seeds||Cucumbers|
|Early April||Start seeds||Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers|
|Mid-May||Transplant||Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers|
|Mid-May||Start seeds||Squash, zucchini|
2– The US Naval Observatory offers an online tool that allows readers to view the duration of daylight and darkness on a one-year calendar based on geographic location. https://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/Dur_OneYear
At publication date, it’s too late to start the brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli) from seed. Find the strongest plants you can at retail. Goose them with some fish emulsion and plant them as deep as the first set of leaves.
This is an excellent time to seed beets, carrots, turnips, radishes, Swiss chard, kale, and spinach right in the garden. Read the seed packets for tips on increasing germination. Many of these plants will make it clear to May. Another option is to re-seed a couple of times during the year as you harvest.
Additional Resources and Information
Master Gardener Tip: Did you know? You can find all research on a specific topic from North Carolina State University by googling: subject+NCSU. Here are some of the links related to vegetable gardening.
North Carolina State University’s Central NC planting calendar provides a comprehensive guide to veggie planting
North Carolina State University’s index of vegetable gardening resources
North Carolina State University’s Vegetable Gardening 101
For more on the Persephone Period, see the University of California Master Gardeners of Napa County’s factsheet
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